Highlights from the Great Fenway Park Writers Series Event on June 25, 2020

It was an excellent discussion that lasted well over an hour.

A scout, Gary Hughes, told Shea that on a scout's scale of 20-80, where 80 is highest score you can get, Willie would have scored an 80 on all 5 tools on which a position player is measured: hit, hit with power, run, throw, and fielding.  That alone separated Mayes from virtually anyone who played game.  But Shea also writes that Mayes possessed a 6th tool that placed him on a higher level.  That 6th tool is what Mayes said he was most proud of – defense, because that is where it starts.  A guy who hit 660 home runs and 3000 hits, all on offense, and he says defense is his best tool: thinking, envisioning, anticipating, knowing what is going to happen.  There are many examples on what Mayes did to win games that have nothing to do with the 5 tools.  This was part of his game that few of us knew.  Mays was the first of his kind to out-think you.

Shea also interviewed three U.S. Presidents about Mayes – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who in 2015 awarded Mayes the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  President Bush said he didn't dream about being President, he dreamed about being Willie Mays.

Julian McWilliams with the Boston Globe happened to write an article the day of this event about the challenges faced by players of color, particularly those in the minor leagues, and about micro aggressions – those terms that can be brushed aside but still have racial nuances and undertones to them.  A lot of players talk about this stuff.  Coming up through a system and hearing you're just that loud black guy, or you don't talk black.  Mookie Betts is never really given credit for how smart he really is.  A lot of players that McWilliams has spoken to have to deal with these things of African American descent, but they don't want to talk about them, to be the angry black guy, to ruffle feathers of the owners.  It is a tremendous burden to be able to navigate these things on when they speak out or sit back.  Mayes had to deal with this, too.  You have to pick and choose your spots, when to go against the grain.

Shea quotes President Clinton as saying because of the way he played and the way he conducted himself, Mayes made it absurd to be a racist.  Shea dedicates a full chapter to what he meant by this, called The Absurdity of Racism.  Clinton's point was that while Jackie Robinson, who broke into the big leagues in his late 20s, went to UCLA, went to the military - compare that to Mayes who's patrolling center field at the polo grounds less than a year after graduation, didn't go to college, didn't have those opportunities.  His high school didn't even have a baseball team.  Clinton talks about Jackie writing a book in 1964, an oral history where he recruits many of the ballplayers who lived through the integration of baseball, black and  white, and they all told their stories.  Jackie was upset with Willie for not wanting to be a part of it.  He condemns Willie in the book saying he does not do enough for the African American cause.  That was hurtful to Willie.  It always stuck with him.  Shea found that with Willie, images were sometimes more powerful than words.  Clinton's point is maybe Willie changed some minds in his way.  This chapter discusses where several people weigh in and tell a different story about how Willie helped the civil rights movement.  Willie always said to leave the game better than when you found it.  Don't play for that man, play for yourself, play for me, for the team.  Uniting and peacekeeping is what Willie Mayes was.

An argument is made that Mayes is the gold standard by which great players either from the past or today are measured.  And Shea describes that there is another way by which Willie stands alone, another quality that separates Willie from most everyone else, and that's the fact that not only is he baseball's greatest player, but arguably its greatest entertainer.  Ballplayers today celebrate after making the great catch, after making the home run.  Willie celebrated during the play.  He showed this joyful exuberance when he was in the field, with the cap flying off.  Willie said he tried to make the hard plays look easy and the easy plays look hard.  "Cause I want those fans to show up tomorrow, and say Oooh."  The 7th tool is the most entertaining ballplayer ever.

This is not just a book about baseball.  It is a book that looks at how Mayes was more than just a sports hero.  He was an American hero and icon, known internationally.  Shea broadened the horizons because Mayes deserved that kind of book.

The next event for the Great Fenway Writers Series will take place in August.  A date will be announced soon.  The book is The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End, by Gary Pomerantz.

SO LONG, GEORGE

How did you and George first meet?
Did he greet you on the street?
Perhaps you waited on his table,
Or had a friend within his stable.
Or was it at a speakers' forum
Which he led with such decorum?
Did you read his Baseball Notes,
Or Facebook blogs, with all those quotes?
Whatever way your lives did blend
This is a fact – you had a friend.
He loved us all with his great heart.
He raised friendship into an art.
He cared for everything, you see –
Well, maybe not the GOP.
This much is certain, among men,
We shall not see his like again.
So let us bid him fond adieu;
So long, George. We love you, too.

–Dick Flavin

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